It was a fine, crisp day in late autumn when Caleb Widogast arrived at the Zadash Museum of Natural History, his satchel hanging from one shoulder and his cat, Frumpkin, draped over his shoulders like a living scarf. After the biting chill of the cold air outside, the blast of warmth that greeted him just inside the museum doors was more than welcome, making him smile to himself as he reached up to adjust his actual, fabric scarf around his neck. The knitted texture of it was soft and familiar beneath his fingertips, worn gentle with time and wear, and the touch of it against his skin helped to calm him somewhat. It had been a long, long time since he’d last lived anywhere but Rexxentrum. It had been a long, long time since he’d last worked anywhere but Rexxentrum. Even now, with all the paperwork signed and all his belongings half-unpacked at his new house, it still didn’t feel entirely real to be here, in a different town halfway across the country.
But he was, and it was too late to change that now. He’d needed to move, had needed a change, had needed to go somewhere quieter, somewhere less steeped in memories of- well, of many things. So here he was. Here he was, standing just inside the doors of his new museum – his new workplace – feeling the heated air roaring from the vents overhead pressing in along his skin.
This was going to be a new beginning for him, and he was going to make the best of it. And that meant putting roots down all over again.
Caleb drew in a breath, chasing the remaining chill from his lungs as he stepped further into the museum. The small atrium-like area he was in stretched away before him, opening up into a large, vaulted hall of dusty red sandstone hung with sparkling chandeliers of lights. They cast a soft light everywhere, painting shadows amongst the arches and catching on the swirls in the marble-tiled floor, and dotted around all over the place Caleb could see assorted displays and exhibits, each with their own information plaques or little signs.
There was also, wonderfully, a very large ‘Information’ sign hanging above a desk off to one side. Caleb had, naturally, already memorised the visitors map, but he knew all too well how they were rarely a truly accurate depiction of a museum, and that whatever image he had in his mind would in no way help in finding out where to go.
It would also be easier to find out where to go, he felt, if he actually knew where he was supposed to be going.
He made his way to the desk, by habit walking as quietly as he could across marble tiles that rang beneath his every step. The sound echoed around him, undercutting the faint swishing of his coat and settling in the corners of the arches like fleeting moments of liquid gold. It wasn’t a sound that was particularly familiar to him – his previous museum had been fond of dark, wooden floors with isolated islands of carpet and tile for certain exhibits – and it felt almost as if the museum was announcing his arrival to whoever it was that was at a museum at 8:55 on a Monday morning. If nothing else, the singing marble was certainly announcing his approach to the lady sitting at the information desk. As he approached, he watched her glance up to look at him, her long, dark hair, falling to neatly cover half of her face.
“Hi, welcome to the Zadash Museum of Natural History!” the lady behind the counter chirped as soon as Caleb was close enough, with a cheeriness that seemed, at least to Caleb, to be entirely genuine. “I’m Calianna; how may I help you today?”
Caleb watched as her eyes flitted from his face to his shoulder, where Frumpkin was still perched, but to her credit she didn’t say anything. Frumpkin’s little service vest, all bright and visible in fluorescent yellow, normally tended to draw some questions, but this lady appeared to be entirely unfazed. “Um, ja, hallo,” Caleb replied. “I am- I am Caleb Widogast, I have- I am the new librarian? For the museum?” He didn’t mean to make the statements sound like questions but they did all the same. “I was- I was supposed to get an email about where to go, but it never arrived and so I- ja. I figured that checking here would be a good course of action.”
The lady- Calianna- gave a small sigh, shaking her head as she quickly tapped away at the keyboard before her. “That would’ve been the servers,” she explained apologetically. “They’ve been a bit weird recently. But if you give me a moment, I can call the assistant director to come and meet you?”
Caleb nodded. “Ja, that would be great, thank you.”
“Sure, no problem!” She looked up at him, giving him a quick grin, and then reached out for the phone, quickly dialling and pressing it to her ear as it rang out. She drummed her nails against the desk as she waited for it to be picked up. The light of the chandeliers glinted off them, catching black and green and gold on the polish. Eventually, the phone gave a quiet click, and from the other end Caleb heard the faint, indeterminate sound of someone speaking. “Hello?” Calianna asked. “Yes, hi, this is Cali. Just letting you know that there’s a mister…” She trailed off, glancing up at Caleb and pulling a quick face of confusion.
Caleb smiled, just a tiny bit. “Widogast,” he reminded her in a loud whisper, and Calianna grinned, flashing him a quick, grateful thumbs up.
“There’s a mister Widogast here for you,” she continued. There was a pause. “Yes.” Another pause. “Yes, he’s just at the desk. Apparently the email of where to go didn’t come through. I know – the servers. I’ll mention it to Bryce.” One more pause, this one longer than the other ones. “Okay, alright, sure! I’ll let him know. Okay. Bye!” She put the phone down, the plastic of the handset clicking gently against the base, and then smiled up at Caleb. “Mister Fjord will be here shortly!” she announced, in a manner that somehow implied that the ‘Mister’ was an important part of this man’s name. “He’ll be able to show you where to go.”
Caleb smiled, just a little bit. “Thank you very much,” he replied.
“Of course! Anything else I can help you with?”
Caleb shook his head. “That was it, thank you.”
“Alright, no worries. If you want, you can take a seat just over there,” Calianna continued, indicating a wooden bench pushed up against one wall of the main hall. “I’ll point him over when he gets here.”
“Thank you,” Caleb said again.
Caleb turned, approaching the bench and taking a seat on it as directed. Around his neck he felt Frumpkin stir, and a moment later the cat tapped gently at his shoulder, requesting permission to jump down and stretch.
“Oh ja, entschuldigung,” Caleb said, smiling slightly. He reached up, scratching Frumpkin absently behind the ears as he let the cat down. “Sorry, schatz. You might as well stretch while we wait for Mr Fjord, hm?”
Frumpkin looked up at him, giving a slow blink. There was a brief pause as he merely looked at Caleb, as if awaiting further permission, and then he yawned widely, stretched out on the bench beside Caleb, and promptly began scratching himself behind the ear.
After ten minutes or so, a flicker of motion from one corner of the room caught Caleb’s eye. He looked up, watching as a slender half-orc dressed in a neat, dark navy shirt with rolled-up sleeves approached the desk, trading a few quick words with Calianna before turning and striding with purpose towards Caleb. Mr Fjord, Caleb assumed. He quickly rose to his feet as the half-orc approached, scooping Frumpkin back up onto his shoulders as he did so.
“Hey!” the half-orc called, his voice pitched so as not to carry too far in the open, echoing hall. “You, uh, you the one Cali told me to meet?”
Caleb nodded. “I- ja, I am. I take it you are Mr Fjord?”
“Just Fjord, please,” Fjord said, offering a hand. “I’m the assistant director to Mr Mercer. He rarely leaves his office so I do most of the meet ‘n greets around here.” He gave Caleb a grin, revealing the points of his tusks, and Caleb found him smiling back almost automatically. This, all of this, was almost automatic. He knew how to be professional. He knew how to be polite. He reached out for Fjord’s hand, squeezing slightly as he let years of practise of a ‘proper business handshake’ take over; lift up, drop down, release.
“Caleb,” he replied. “Caleb Widogast. And this is Frumpkin,” he added, inclining his head towards the cat perched on his shoulder. Frumpkin gave a soft mrrp, and Caleb felt his weight shifting slightly as his attention turned towards Fjord.
Fjord’s gaze flittered up. “Ah,” he said. He shook Caleb’s hand and then released it, stepping back slightly. “This is- this is your service animal, right? The one you mentioned in your email?”
“Ja,” Caleb said, “he is.” He wasn’t going to be nervous about this question. He wasn’t. He knew what was permitted, and what was allowed, and he knew that it was entirely legal for him to have Frumpkin with him.
Fjord nodded. “And is he, uh… is he always with you?”
Caleb narrowed his eyes, feeling confusion and concern starting to edge along his nerves. “…More or less,” he said eventually. It was the best answer he could think to give. In truth, Frumpkin was very rarely far from his side – even at home, where Frumpkin was technically off-duty and was allowed to wander around free from the restraints of his vest, he was still never very far away. Caleb’s new home was far from large, and even when off-duty Frumpkin tended to stick close-by. After all, he knew what his master was like. He knew how anxious Caleb could get in new environments. “He is- ja, while I am at work, he will always be with me.”
“Hm,” Fjord hummed, frowning a little. “That’s- hm.”
Caleb didn’t like the sound of those hms. “Is that- is that a problem?” he asked, feeling his palms starting to sweat. “I had- I have all of his papers and qualifications with me in case you need to see them. I emailed them with my application, though, so you should have a copy-”
“No, no, yeah, we do,” Fjord interrupted quickly. “I- yeah, that’s all good, I’m just…” He trailed off, giving a small cough as he glanced to one side. “I’m just… allergies, y’know?”
“Ah.” There was an awkward pause. “He is a hypoallergenic breed, though,” Caleb added after a while. “So it should not be too bad.”
“Yeah, no, I mean I’m currently wheezin’ like a madman, so- yeah.” Fjord coughed again, seemly off-balance, and looked back at Caleb. Caleb wasn’t sure what expression was on his face, but it became apparently the moment Fjord caught sight of it – his own face smoothed out, quickly becoming almost apologetic. “Don’t you worry, though, I did all my reading when we confirmed your position. I know all his rights and stuff,” Fjord assured him quickly, a small smile tugging at his lips. “Made sure to pass it ‘round everyone else, too. Jester might try and snag a picture of him and honestly I’m not too sure how Nott will react – she can be a little bit odd sometimes, but in a good way – but everyone should be on their best behaviour with him. If they’re not, you just come find me and let me know, alright?”
Caleb blinked. That was… in all honesty, that was much more than he was expecting. “I- ja, alright,” he managed. “I will be sure to do that, Mr Fjord.”
“Great. In that case, I guess I might as well show you where to go. And just Fjord, please,” said Fjord, half-turning and starting to lead Caleb through the museum. “’Mr Fjord’ gives me the heebie-jeebies. Makes me sound like I should be a- a teacher or something, y’know? Makes me sound all serious and professional and stuff.”
“…You are the assistant director.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I get that. My name is on my office door and all that- all that doohickey. I’m just sayin’ that I don’t want to sound like a teacher. Or a- a lawyer, or something of that ilk.”
“Ah,” Caleb said. “I understand.”
He continued to follow Fjord as the half-orc led the way through the museum, doing his best to commit the path he took to memory. He was well aware that this museum, like the vast majority of museums, almost certainly had any number of staff entrances hidden around the place, tucked away behind pillars or in unexpected corners, but it was likely that this path that Fjord was taking was better by some as-yet unknown metric. Eventually, Fjord stopped by a little door neatly hidden by a nook in the walls. Even with the number pad resting to one side of it it looked unassuming, unimpressive and easy to miss.
“So,” Fjord said, “here we are. You’re going to be needing this.” He reached into his pocket, withdrawing an ID card that he quickly passed to Caleb. “Code is 0228,” he added. He stepped aside, gesturing towards the door with a wave that would not look out of place in a circus tent. “I feel you should be the one to do the honours. Swipe the card, punch the number, and head on in. Simple as.”
Caleb nodded, stepping up to the door. It was the work of a moment for him to follow Fjord’s instructions, his fingers dancing over the number pad before the little blinking light above it turned green. There was a soft thunk as the door unlocked. Caleb reached out, turned the handle, and stepped through into an altogether different space.
As anyone who had ever worked in such a setting would know, the private side of a museum is a different world entirely to the public side, in a manner that could occasionally put you in mind of a swan – the public half drifts along looking all serene and regal, generally being pretty and tidy and getting put on postcards, and then beneath the water the private half is doing a hell of a lot of work to keep the whole thing looking as lovely as it does.
It was the private half of the museum that Caleb entered into now, and it was immediately a much more familiar space to him.
The corridor he stepped into was small and narrow, stretching away to either side of him. The wall immediately before him was periodically broken up by windows, fossilised spiderwebs adorning their corners and casting faint shadows in the sunlight that streamed through them.
He heard Fjord step through after him, the door swinging shut with a quiet click. Immediately, the background sound of the museum itself was cut off, replaced instead with the strange, tinny humming of fluorescent lights and the soft, gentle rumbling of background systems performing their standard tasks. It sounded, in all honesty, like pretty much every other museum that Caleb had worked at before – if he strained he could just about hear the distant sound of voices, but they were faint, and were shortly drowned out by Fjord’s footsteps as he started walking.
“It’s a bit of a maze back here,” Fjord remarked conversationally, leading the way along the corridor. “Like, not here, obviously, this is just the connecting corridor between the wings, but once you get into the wings themselves it’s a fuckin’ nightmare, I’ll tell you that much. I still get lost from time to time. There’s a couple of maps dotted around the place to show where all the fire escapes are and stuff, but don’t be surprised if you get lost during your first few weeks. Just knock on the nearest door – whoever it is should be able to help you out.”
Caleb hummed. “Thank you, but I do not think I will need to do that very often.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“I have a photographic memory.”
“Oh!” Fjord paused, glancing over at Caleb. A little half-smile tugged at his lips, his expression morphing into something that could almost be impressed. “Well, damn. Ain’t that handy!”
“It has come in useful before.”
“Yeah, I can imagine.” Fjord laughed quietly, shaking his head before he continued walking. “Damn,” he muttered again. “You lucky bastard. You’re going to show us all up. Even Beau took, man, I want to say about a week to learn the layout, and she’s whip-smart.”
“Beauregard. She’s our intern-wrangler. Well, intern and volunteer manager, technically,” Fjord explained, turning a corner into a different corridor. “She can be a bit… abrasive, but she means well. Normally. Unless she’s feuding with Jester or Nott, in which case it’s best to just leave them to it.”
“They normally feud about stupid shit, too. Like, which shoe you should lace up first.”
“…That can cause a feud?”
“If you’re Nott, or Beau, or Jester, sure. They can be, uh, opinionated.” Fjord glanced over at Caleb, spotting the expression on his face. “Not in a bad way!” he added quickly. “Just in a little bit of a weird way.”
Caleb raised an eyebrow, slowing to a stop as Fjord paused by a door. “Weirder than the majority of people who work in a museum?”
That gave Fjord pause. “N-no…” he said eventually. “I mean- no, not really, they’re just- it’s a different kind of weird, you feel me? Like- I don’t know, you’ll find out when you meet them. They’re good people, though. Just weird.”
Caleb nodded. He could handle ‘weird’. He could definitely handle weird, and was in fact pretty certain that he counted as weird himself.
“Anyway,” Fjord continued, pushing open the door to reveal a not small, but certainly not large office. “This is you.”
Caleb hummed quietly, reaching up almost absently to unclip Frumpkin and help him down from his shoulder as he looked around the space. It was a pleasant enough little room; warm autumn sunlight streamed through the window positioned between the two desks that stood on either side of the room, painting lines of gold across the floor and catching on the little desk labels. One side of the room looked to be freshly cleared out – the shelves behind the desk were all blank and empty, though Caleb had no doubt that the filing cabinets resting beneath them would be full of important paperwork that he would have to familiarise himself with, and there were no signs of any personal belongings adorning the desk or the one half of the windowsill that wasn’t covered in a collection of small, sparkling glass jars. From what Caleb could see at this distance, they all looked to be full of buttons.
“The library and archives are next door - this here’s your office,” Fjord explained, leading the way inside. “You’re sharing it with Nott – she’s our slide librarian.”
“Nott?” Caleb asked, stepping into the room after Fjord and frowning at the desk labels. In the emails he’d received from the museum’s curator, he’d been told that he would be sharing an office with the slide librarian Veth Brenatto. Even now, looking at the desk labels, he saw no indication of anyone called ‘Nott’ - the one on the empty side of the room was entirely blank, and the one on the side of the room that looked like the lair of a small but eclectic dragon definitely read ‘Veth Brenatto’. “Who is, ah, who is Nott?”
“Hm?” Fjord hummed, looking around absently for a second before blinking and abruptly turning back to face Caleb. “Oh, right! Yeah, I suppose you don’t know about that.” He reached up, scratching at the back of his neck as he nodded towards the dragon-hoard side of the room. “Nott is… well, Nott is Veth, y’know? It’s our, uh, nickname for her.” There was a pause as Caleb frowned to himself. Fjord sighed. “It makes more sense with context,” he muttered, dropping his hand again. “I’ll- you know what, I’m sure she’ll explain it to you soon enough. Or Beau will. Or Jester.”
“You seem to mention those three a lot,” Caleb remarked absently, his attention starting to drift as Frumpkin trotted across the floor, nose down to the ground as he sniffed around the room.
“Well, we all kinda- we all hang out a lot together. Me ‘n Jessie, and Beau, and Nott, and some of the others. You’ll probably meet ‘em pretty soon. They’re probably in the break room…”
Caleb hummed, continuing to watch Frumpkin. He was aware that Fjord was still speaking but, right now, it wasn’t exactly something that he was focusing on. He couldn’t, not now. Not when Frumpkin was working.
Almost absently, Caleb drew in a breath, letting the air settle in his lungs. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to smell what Frumpkin was looking for – that was part of the reason why he had Frumpkin, after all, but it helped all the same. The air here smelled comforting, somehow; like the rest of the museum it held that same soft, almost papery smell of years of compounded time. It was the sort of smell you got in old cathedrals, in houses that had long since been turned into museums in their own rights. It smelled old, like wood and polish and the memories of a hundred other people.
To Caleb, it smelled familiar.
He let his gaze drift around the room as Fjord continued to talk, listing to the more familiar explanations of what his job would entail. Nothing about it was a surprise to him – he’d worked in museum libraries before, and aside from a few differences between collection management methods and a couple of strange, bizarre intricacies present in every museum, it was all familiar to him. He’d read the emails and job posting on the website. He’d done his research. He was ready, and he was prepared, and this was going to be good for him. He was sure of it.
Fjord abruptly cleared his throat, catching Caleb’s attention.
“Caleb?” Fjord asked. “Is, uh, is Frumpkin…” Fjord trailed off, gesturing down to where Frumpkin was sniffing industriously along every wall of the room, leaping up onto the desks and filing cabinets to investigate particular areas. “Is he- does he normally do that?”
Caleb swallowed. He didn’t… he didn’t want to explain exactly what Frumpkin was doing, or why. Not yet. Not now. The finer details of Frumpkin’s job, the exact nature of Caleb’s dependency on him, could all be explained later, when it actually needed to be out in the open. When I actually know the people I am working with. “He is… he is working,” he said eventually. It wasn’t a lie. “This is- he will return to me shortly. This is just his standard procedure for a new environment.”
“Checkin’ for something?”
“Something like that, ja.”
Fjord shrugged, and Caleb felt the growing knot in his stomach loosen. “Alright then,” Fjord replied. “Just so long as he doesn’t knock anything over. Can’t imagine Nott’d be pleased if she came back here and it turned out that Frumpkin had messed up her collection or something.”
“Frumpkin is very careful,” Caleb replied, his voice growing absent as Frumpkin paused at a corner of a room. For one brief, horrible moment Caleb thought that he had found something, that he had picked up on something, but then the moment passed and Frumpkin continued, his tail flicking absently as he worked. It’s okay, Caleb told himself quietly, feeling his heart starting to settle. It’s okay, it’s alright. He would have meowed if something was amiss. You know this.
Frumpkin took another minute or so to finish inspecting the room, carefully inspecting every corner and wall before he trotted back to Caleb and nudged his head against Caleb’s leg. Almost immediately Caleb felt himself calm, what worry and anxiety had been lingering at the edges of his nerves fading as Frumpkin gave him the okay-signal. “Danke,” he murmured quietly, as he always did. He reached down, clipping Frumpkin’s lead back onto his harness, and lifted the cat back up to his shoulders, waiting for him to settle down before turning to Fjord. “He is finished,” he informed Fjord. “It is- he has done what he needs to do.”
“Yeah?” asked Fjord, still sounding rather confused. “He- yeah, alright, cool. That’s- that’s good. You ready to keep on with the tour?”
Caleb nodded. “Ja.”
“Great. I figured we could drop by Caduceus on the way, see if he wants to tag along en route to the break room. Mycology is right close to the break room – no, don’t ask me why, I don’t know.” Caleb shut his mouth. “As I said – this place is a damn maze,” Fjord continued, starting to lead the way out of Caleb’s new office. Caleb followed quietly, glancing around the corridors as they continued to walk. Most of the doors were labelled but some weren’t, and those that were labelled ranged from proper, professional, engraved bronze plates, to little plastic card-holders, to what looked like post-it notes held on with duct tape and hope. Somehow, those last few labels only endeared Caleb to the museum further. He liked that it was a bit scruffy. It felt lived-in. It felt alive.
After a while, they drew to a stop outside another door, this one proudly bearing a printed sheet of paper that declared it to be the mycology department. Someone had, at some later point, added little doodles of smiling mushrooms to it.
“Mycology,” Fjord said unnecessarily, knocking on the door once before pushing it open. The room it revealed seemed almost entirely deserted – the only person visible beneath the bright white lights was a firbolg, sitting at a desk on the far side of the room, peering closely at something before him. With the firbolg’s back to them, Caleb couldn’t see much beyond a fuzzy-looking beige sweater and the firbolg’s soft pink hair, done up in a messy bun at the back of his head that was made just a bit lop-sided by the fact that one side of his head was shaved down to nothing more than pink fuzz.
Fjord whistled, the sudden sound making Caleb jump. “Hey, Deucey!” Across the room, the firbolg’s head lifted, revealing a gentle-looking face with a pair of surprisingly piercing pale pink eyes. Fjord nodded towards Caleb, inclining his head out towards the hallway. “Me ‘n Caleb here are headed to the break room to say hi to whoever’s there and hopefully pick up Nott. You want to tag along?”
There was a pause. The firbolg blinked. And then, in a voice that sounded like gravel if gravel had been made from velvet, he said, ‘Sure, I might do that.’
“Oh, great. You can mediate if they start getting too sassy,” Fjord said. “Oh, and Caleb, this is Caduceus Clay. He’s our assistant curator of mycology, resident dermestid-keeper and… well, a whole host of other things.”
The firbolg smiled, unfolding himself from his chair. It was a surprisingly graceful movement, for all that Caduceus looked like he was made of particularly brittle twigs covered with a fine layer of pale grey fur. He crossed the room in a few long strides, brushing a loose strand of pink hair back behind his ear as he did so. Caleb couldn’t quite tell if the colour was natural or not, but either way it suited him. It matched the little flowers embroidered on his trousers.
Caduceus was also, Caleb realised absently as he drew closer, very, very tall. Seven feet, easily, though the faint hunch in his spine and the soft, gentle colours that he wore seemed to make him appear smaller. It was only when Caleb forced his feet to move, stepping up before him, that the true height difference became apparent. Gods. Caleb didn’t think he’d met anyone that tall in his entire life.
"Dr Clay, it's a pleasure to meet you," he said, holding out his hand. He hadn't been told if Caduceus was a doctor, but he assumed that, like the vast majority of curators, he'd picked up a PhD at some point in his life. It just seemed to be the done thing. "I, ah, I am Caleb Widogast."
Before him, Caduceus smiled. It was a very nice smile, slow and soft like dawning sunlight, and Caleb found himself staring almost without meaning to. Caduceus reached out and took Caleb's hand, squeezing it gently; against Caleb's palm, his skin felt unexpectedly soft, furred and gentle like the skin of a peach. "Pleasure to meet you too, Mr Widogast," Caduceus replied. "But, please, call me Caduceus. Dr Clay is my father."
Caleb smiled back. It was a small smile, barely more than a twitch of his lips, but he couldn’t help it. Something about Caduceus was almost comforting, for all that he physically dwarfed Caleb, and his slow, soft smile made Caleb want to smile back. It made him want to befriend this strange assistant curator. “If I must call you Caduceus then I insist that you call me Caleb,” he replied, shaking Caduceus’ hand.
“Oh, sure, I can do that,” Caduceus said. His voice was soft, slow and rumbling, and every word that he spoke gave the distinct impression that he’d mulled over it for quite a while before so much as considering speaking it aloud. “Caleb. That’s a good name.”
Caleb blinked. “Ja?”
“Yeah. It means ‘faithful’. That’s a good meaning to have in your name.”
Caduceus grinned again. “I have no idea what that means,” he replied.
“Oh! It is- it is Zemnian. It means ‘thank you’.”
“Oh.” Caduceus paused. “Yeah, I suppose that would make sense. Huh. That’s real neat.” He finally dropped Caleb’s hand, his hands slipping into his pockets as he turned towards Fjord. “You said the break room, yeah?” Fjord nodded. “Great. I’ve got some things I need to pick up from the fridge.”
Fjord sighed. “Please tell me it’s not a bird.”
“It’s not a bird,” Caduceus replied easily, following Fjord as he started to leave. “It’s much better than a bird. It’s soup. I’m trying a new recipe.”
Fjord glanced at him. “Uh-huh,” he said, and then they lapsed into silence.
They moved along the corridors in a peaceful sort of quiet, with only the sound of their footsteps to interrupt the still, timeless air. It was unexpectedly nice, Caleb found. It somehow didn’t feel awkward, for all that he was trailing after two relative strangers with a cat draped around his neck, in a place he’d never been to before. The museum felt- well, not familiar, not yet, but homely. Comfortable. It felt, unlike the museum in Rexxentrum, like a place that Caleb could actually come to love. Like a place that he could really, truly settle into. The museum was just nice.
Caleb glanced up, his eyes briefly resting on Caduceus. The people were nice, too.
Eventually, the distant sound of voices raised in an argument reached them.
“I’m just pointing out,” a voice was saying loudly, “no, fuck off, you know I’m fucking right – I’m just pointing out that it’s weird, okay! It’s really weird!” The voice echoed down the hall, a little bit muffled by distance, but distinct and clear all the same.
“You do it too, though, Beau!” replied a different voice. This one sounded more indignant than offended, the words tinged with an accent that put Caleb in mind of the Menagerie Coast. “So does Molly! And Nott!”
“My point exactly. They’re both fuckin’ weird. No offense, Nott.”
“I would say no offense to Molly, too, but the fucker is still off doing his- his fuckin’- his thing, y’know? And besides, I bet he would agree with me that it’s weird.”
“It’s normal, though.”
“Normal can still be weird.”
“This isn’t weird, though, Beau!”
The first speaker gave a sigh. Even from this distance, it sounded distinctly long-suffering. “Jessie.”
“You’re just- you’re fuckin- no.”
Next to Caleb, Caduceus gave a quiet hum. “What do you think they’re arguing about?” he asked, leaning down a little to be closer to Caleb. Caleb shrugged.
“It could be anything,” he replied. “I do not- I have not met these people yet, Caduceus.”
“Nein. You are- apart from Fjord, you are the first other employee that I have met.”
There was a pause. Caleb glanced up, meeting Caduceus’s gaze as his face morphed into a slow, warm smile. “Oh,” he said. “Well, that’s nice. I hope I made a good impression.”
Caleb smiles back. He can’t help it. “You did. You are very, ah, very welcoming.”
“Am I?” Caduceus replied, sounding delighted. “That’s good to know. Thank you.”
Caleb shrugged, and felt his smile grow wider. Caduceus was nice.
From down the corridor, the voices were still arguing, only growing louder as they approached a door that Caleb could now see was labelled ‘break room’. Beneath the label reading ‘break room’, there was a smaller label. The smaller label read, in hastily written capital letters: ‘ABSOLUTELY NO BIRDS TO BE LEFT IN THE FREEZER’. Fjord pushed open the door, revealing a pleasantly-furnished room populated by a human, a tiefling, and a halfling, all of whom appeared to be engaged in an intensely serious debate.
“Listen to me!” the human was saying, leaning forwards and pointing a finger towards the blue-skinned tiefling sat on the couch opposite her. “It’s weird, alright? I don’t care if it tastes good or not – it’s still fuckin’ weird, and anyone who does it is automatically a weirdo, myself included. But what’s important is acknowledging that it’s weird. I’m not saying to stop doing it, okay? I’m just saying that it’s weird and good. It can be both.”
The tiefling narrowed her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest. “Hmm,” she said, sniffing dismissively. “Maybe. You’re still wrong, though.”
“Oh, what the f-”
“Ahem,” said Fjord, giving the loudest, most false-sounding cough that Caleb had ever heard.
The halfling looked up. “Fjord!” she exclaimed, her button earring swinging as she turned her head. “Tell Beau that she’s wrong!”
Fjord sighed. “What’s the argument about this time?”
“Dipping your fries in milkshakes,” Beau said. “Weird, or not weird?”
“Gross,” Fjord replied. “Gross, and weird, and practically gods-damn unholy, alright? Now shut up for a second, will you? I was just dropping by to introduce our lovely new librarian to all of you disasters.” He raised a hand, indicating the tiefling, the human, and the halfling in order. “Caleb, this is Jester, Beau, and Nott- sorry, Veth. Jester’s our exhibit artist, Beau’s our intern and volunteer manager, as I said, and Nott’s the slide librarian. All of you lot, meet Caleb Widogast.”
Caleb raised a hand awkwardly. “Ah, hallo.”
“You are all to be very nice to him and not scare him off in his first week, alright?” Fjord continued. “We all need a librarian and you know it. Any questions?”
“What’s your cat called?” Jester shouted out immediately, sticking her hand in the air and waving it wildly. “He’s super cute! What’s his name? Can I pet him?”
“Jester!” Fjord hissed.
“He is, ah, his name is Frumpkin,” Caleb interrupted quietly, drawing Jester’s attention back to him. “But you cannot pet him, sorry. He is working right now.”
“Aww,” said Jester, visibly deflating, but barely a second passed before she perked back up again. “Ooh! Can I take a picture of him instead? Would that be alright?”
“I, um, I suppose that would be alright,” replied Caleb, briefly overwhelmed by the sheer bubbliness that Jester seemed to exude. Jester grinned at him, practically leaping up from the couch to bounce over to him, tugging her phone – and it’s attached lethal weapon’s worth of phone charms – out from the pocket of her dungarees.
“He’s super cute,” she said happily, raising her phone and snapping some pictures. “And I really like his little jacket.”
“You- ja?” Caleb heard himself asking.
“Yeah! It’s like, super cute, and super adorable, you know?”
“It is, um, it is just his working harness.”
“It would look good with polka dots.” Jester lowered her phone. “Thank you for letting me take pictures, Caleb!”
“Of course,” Caleb replied, unable to think of any other suitable response. There was a brief, uncertain pause.
“So,” Beau said suddenly, breaking the growing silence. “Caleb. New guy. I got a question for you.”
Caleb looked to her. “Ja?”
Beau leaned forwards, resting her elbows on her knees, and fixed him with a penetrating stare. “Yeah,” she said. “What are your thoughts on fries dipped in milkshakes?”
And then, just like that, there was conversation again. Caleb found himself quickly tugged down onto a couch by Jester, and within moments he was squeezed in by Jester on one side and Caduceus on the other. It was a close fit, their knees knocking together as Jester leaned forwards excitedly to talk, but it somehow wasn’t bad. The anxiety that Caleb so often felt in social situations was present, yes, but it was lessened somehow, because none of the others seemed to care that he was new. They didn’t seem to care that he had a cat sitting on his shoulders, or that the cat was dressed in a fluorescent yellow harness. They just accepted him, and acknowledged him, and occasionally asked for his opinions on what food combinations were good, which were weird, and which should be illegal.
Caleb was quickly getting the impression that they all had rather strong opinions on this topic.
It was some thirty minutes later that Fjord clapped his hands together loudly, standing from the couch.
“Right, that’s enough yammerin’,” he said. “We’ve all got jobs to do – don’t look at me like that, Beau, you fuckin’ volunteered to be the volunteer manager – so we better get back to work. Nott, mind showin’ Caleb back to the office?”
“I can do that,” Nott said, standing from the couch and beckoning to Caleb. “Come on, lanky. I need to make sure you don’t get lost.”
“I, um, I actually have a photographic memory-” Caleb pointed out, even as Nott led the way back into the corridor. “So I will not- I cannot get lost. I can remember things perfectly for up to a month.”
“Oh, ja. I have been able to for my entire life.”
“Mm. It comes in very useful for a lot of board games.”
Nott visibly perked up at that. “Really? How?”
“Well,” Caleb started to explain, “if there is a game where you need to keep in mind a lot of pieces of information, or you need to try to remember the location of objects, having a perfect memory helps a lot with that.”
“Have you ever used it to cheat?”
“I- well- it is not cheating if it is something I can naturally do-”
Caleb smiled. “… perhaps,” he admitted, and Nott laughed brightly, her voice echoing down the hallway. She reached up, patting Caleb as high on his back as she could manage.
“We’re going to get on like a house on fire,” she commented happily. “I can feel it.”
The day passed.
It didn’t take long for Caleb to get settled down once he returned to the office alongside Nott, listening to her chattering away and occasionally asking the odd question until they reached their little shared room. He unclipped Frumpkin and set him down on the floor the moment they were both inside, providing him with the food and water that was always in his bag, and then got to work on familiarising himself with the new system he would need to work with. It was dull, familiar work, and the day passed in a comfortable blur of conversation and the gently mind-bending work of understanding the complex filing system that the old librarian had apparently decided to enforce. It was only when the clock was drawing close to 5pm that a knock came at the door, startling Caleb out of his filing system-induced fugue.
“Come in, Beau,” Nott called without looking up from her desk.
The door swung open. “How the fuck do you always know that it’s me?” Beau asked, wandering in and leaning back against a wall with her arms crossed over her chest. “I mean, seriously! You always fuckin’ know that it’s me knocking. It’s creepy.”
“It’s because you knock on doors like you’re trying to punch them off their hinges,” Nott replied. She finished tidying something on her desk and then looked up, meeting Beau’s gaze. “What do you want?”
Beau shrugged. “Nothing,” she replied. “I was just going to say that myself and some of the others were thinking of heading out for drinks after work. Sort of a, a celebration of not having Dairon- of having Caleb as our new librarian, y’know? So, we figured we’d check if you wanted to tag along.” Her eyes narrowed, gaze darting to Caleb as a grin crossed her face. “Except for you. It’s kind of mandatory for you to come, at least for a little bit. I don’t make the rules.”
“Yes, you do,” Caleb heard Nott muttering. “You literally came up with them with Jester.”
“I don’t write the rules.”
“You wrote them on a piece of paper and then got it laminated so you could stick it to the microwave-”
“If you come with us, Nott will buy your first drink as a welcome present.”
Nott gave a shocked gasp. “Beau!”
Beau looked over at her, only grinning wider. “Got a problem with that? You still owe me a drink, remember?”
“I owe you a drink. I don’t owe Caleb anything.”
Beau shrugged. “Then buy me a drink and I’ll give it to Caleb. Either way,” she added, turning her attention back towards Caleb, “your first drink is free, alright? So what do you say?” Behind her, Caleb could see Nott roll her eyes and stand from her desk, tugging on her coat and grumbling to herself quietly as she left, though it seemed like she just stopped outside the door. At least, Caleb couldn’t hear her footsteps moving away down the corridor.
From the corner of his eye, he caught a flicker of movement.
“Caleb,” Beau said again, catching his attention. “What do you say? You. Us. The squad, such as we are. Drinking, merrymaking, free drinks, and general, y’know, workplace bonding. You coming or what?”
Caleb considered this. He had never really been one for- well, for socialising in general, and certainly not in places like bars, where everything was loud and there were countless threads of conversation and, above all, there was no possible way for Frumpkin to investigate every corner in order to make Caleb feel secure and safe. In bars, he just had to hope that the smell of- that Frumpkin would still be able to work and focus above the chatter and the smells of alcohol and countless people. In bars, he just had to accept that he would always be at least slightly on-edge.
In bars, with others, when he was in a new place, in a new city, staying in a new home with an entirely new group of colleagues, he would be far from his most relaxed.
But at the same time…
At the same time, he was determined to actually make an effort here. He’d moved practically from one side of the country to the other, uprooting his old life with every intention of creating a new one here. He’d told himself that he was going to put down roots, that he was going to actually interact with people, and he doubted he was going to get a better opportunity than this. He was out-right being invited to join whatever small group of weirdos it was that he’d inadvertently fallen in with and, from what he’d experienced of them so far, they all seemed to be… well, decent. Nice. Understanding without being prying, accepting the cat on his shoulder without question and making him feel immediately welcome, enfolded into their group without so much as a hiccup. He already felt like he belonged here, for all that he’d been at the museum for roughly eight hours. It was nice. They were nice.
You will not get an opportunity better than this.
Caleb looked up at Beau. “Yes,” he said decisively. “I will- ja, I will join you.”
“Fuck yeah, dude!” Beau leaned over, punching him lightly on the arm. “Sweet!” She leaned back, shouting out of the door. “Nott! You owe Caleb a drink! I’m giving him your IOU!”
From the corridor, there came a noise. It sounded like a certain button-adorned halfling shouting ‘fuck you!’
Beau laughed. “Fuckin’ asshole,” she said, but her voice was fond. “Caleb, you get your shit together and I’ll meet you outside in the corridor, alright? Don’t want you getting lost or whatever. Fjord would never let me hear the end of it if I lost our new librarian.”
“Fjord is coming?” Caleb asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Beau replied cheerfully. “Dude might be assistant director or whatever but he’s a part of the asshole gang whether he likes it or not.”
“The… the asshole gang?”
“Yeah! Me, Nott, Fjord, Jessie, Yasha, Molly – whenever he’s about and not off fuckin’ gallivanting, or whatever it is that he does – and Deuces, even though he’s the only one of us who’s not an asshole.”
Caleb raised an eyebrow, feeling a small smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. “If I am being invited to join you and the, ah, asshole gang, what does that make me?”
“Fresh meat,” Beau answered immediately. She leaned over, clapping him on the shoulder, and then turned to leave, calling back to him over her shoulder. “Now come on, Widogast! Don’t leave me waiting!”
The door shut behind her with a soft click, leaving Caleb alone in his office. For a moment he just sat there in the silence, listening to the muffled sound of Beau and Nott trading words before Nott presumably headed off down the corridor to meet the others. She was a strange individual, he felt, but a good one. She seemed like a good person, in the short length of time that he’d spent with her so far. He felt that, given time, they could possibly grow to become friends.
He’d like that, he realised. He’d like that quite a lot. This place, this museum… he had only been for a day and yet already it felt familiar to him, safe and comfortable as if he’d been here all his life. It didn’t feel at all like the museum he’d left in Rexxentrum, where everything was so exacting and precise, neat and ordered to the point of being stifling. This museum had life, had character.
And, now, it was his museum too.
Caleb smiled to himself, looking up and over to where Frumpkin was sat on one of the filing cabinets, his tail flicking lazily back and forth. He clicked his tongue, calling Frumpkin over to him, and reached for the cat’s leash at the same time, reaching out to clip it onto his harness as soon as he was close enough.
“Come on,” he said, still smiling to himself. “It seems we have to go out and socialise, ja?”
Frumpkin didn’t meow, aware that he was technically on-duty, but gave a soft purr instead, nudging his forehead against Caleb’s chest before leaping up to his shoulder, making himself comfortable as Caleb laughed quietly. Caleb rose, grabbing up his scarf and coat and swinging them on, and then, giving one last glance back into his new office, stepped out into the hallway.
Across the corridor, Beau was waiting for him. The moment she laid eyes on Caleb she smiled again, pushing off the wall and walking over to meet him. “You all good?” she asked.
Caleb nodded. “Ja,” he replied. “I am- I am good.”
“Great.” She grinned wider. “Come on, Widogast. It’s time we all got to properly know you.”